Time to Set Aside Set-Asides?
With the civil-rights race won, our government should embrace colorblindness.


Barack Obama’s inauguration is “a huge civil rights moment.” So said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who added that Obama “has run the last lap of a 54-year race for civil rights.” As Inauguration Day approached, Obama himself discussed with the Washington Post “how his racial identity can unify and transform the country.” The Post quotes him thus:

There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American. I mean, that’s a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn’t underestimate the force of that.

It’s not the first time Obama has addressed the issue of race, of course. Many will recall his speech in Philadelphia last March, in which he linked his own multi-racial, multi-ethnic heritage to the history of race relations in America. (He memorably noted that he has relatives “of every hue scattered on three continents.”)

But Obama’s most revealing comments on race came in a May 2007 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “[Y]ou and your wife went to Harvard Law School. You’ve got plenty of money. You’re running for president,” Stephanopoulos noted. “Why should your daughters, when they go to college, get affirmative action?”

Distancing himself from the usual, race-centered view of affirmative action, Obama acknowledged that “my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.”

And he didn’t stop there. Universities, he said, should also take into account “white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.”

Affirmative action, he concluded, “can’t be a quota system and it can’t be something that is simply applied without looking at the whole person, whether that person is black or white or Hispanic, male or female.” Obama even held out the hope that eventually affirmative action would wither away, becoming, over time, “a diminishing tool to achieve racial equality in this society.”

His optimism that the days of race-conscious laws are numbered harks back to the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor declared that “race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time” because “racial classifications are potentially so dangerous that they may be employed no more broadly than the interest demands.” In one of the most bizarre passages in Supreme Court case law, O’Connor mused:

It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race in the context of public higher education. Since that time, the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased. We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.

O’Connor’s clock has been ticking for more than five years now. With Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office, shouldn’t we dramatically accelerate the timetable? Can we finally complete that “last lap” by eliminating the hundreds of race- and gender-based preferences that are ensconced in federal law?

A 2004 Congressional Research Service (CRS) survey of federal affirmative-action policies offers Obama a roadmap to accomplish just that. The CRS report is a broad but admittedly non-exhaustive review of federal laws, regulations, and executive orders that “prefer or consider race, gender, or ethnicity as affirmative factors in federal employment, in the allocation of federal contracts, or in granting any federal benefit to individuals or institutions.” It uncovers, by my count, 173 “goals, timetables, set-asides, and quotas” in virtually every area where Uncle Sam hires employees, lets contracts, dispenses benefits, or enacts regulations. The authors summarize the breadth of their findings as follows:

[T]argeted funding, in various forms, and minority or disadvantaged business set-asides or preferences have been included in major authorization or appropriation measures for agriculture, communications, defense, education, public works, transportation, foreign relations, energy and water development, banking, scientific research and space exploration, and other purposes.

Obviously, these preferences cover quite a large chunk of taxpayer money. In 2007 total federal procurement activity exceeded $440 billion. Federal bureaucrats handed out another $495 billion in grants.

The set-asides come in all shapes and sizes–5 percent, 6.9 percent, 8 percent, 10 percent, 12 percent, and even 15 percent. Several examples follow.